Trade Brings Killer Smallpox Epidemic

Mandan Villages, Missouri River, 1781

Thousands of Mandan people, as many as four in five, have died of smallpox in the first major epidemic caused by a white disease. Only 2,000 to 3,000 Mandan remain alive. The Mandan village was so devastated by the disease that those left had to reduce the size of the town.

In the year that the Continental Army under George Washington has defeated the British in the American Revolution, the people not yet known by white Americans are dying in great numbers throughout the western part of the North American continent.

Reports from elsewhere demonstrate how quickly the disease spreads through contact between traders from the different tribes in the North American West. At the Bow River in Shoshoni territory far to the west of the Mandan villages, Blackfeet scouts found a deserted Shoshoni group of tipis. They saw horses grazing but no people. When they discovered that all the Shoshoni were dead, the Blackfeet took all their horses and goods. Within two weeks, as many as two-thirds of the Blackfeet were dead.

The once dominant people on the Missouri, the Mandan are so reduced that they find it increasingly difficult to defend themselves against the nomadic tribes who come into the area.

The feared smallpox has been killing native peoples on the continent from the first encounter with whites. In 1541, a Spanish friar wrote, “when the smallpox began to infect the Indians, there was so much sickness and pestilence among them in all the land that in most provinces more than half the people died . . . “



By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

Related Links The State Historical Society of North Dakota provides history and images relating to the Double Ditch State Historic Site near Bismarck where Native people lived for more than three centuries. Extensive archeological studies explain how the settlement constricted in size over time, most dramatically after the smallpox epidemic of 1781-82. The Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site provides educational material on tribes, trading patterns, and Native American history. The images and illustrations of the earthlodges are useful.